Monday, 8 March 2010
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
Stripped down like this to it's bare essentials, this book is a family saga, encompassing father, brother and son. The story is narrated mostly by Jasper Dean, and is really an autobiography, at least that what he intends to write. I was intrigued from the start, when Jasper admits he is writing this book in prison, although he doesn't say why. He does give the indication that we will find out during the course of the book though. (we do, right at the end) It is not however written as a straightforward biography. As Jasper himself says in the first few pages
"I guess I should admit it. This will be as much about my father as it is about me. I hate how no one can tell the story of his life without making a star of his enemy, but that's just the way it is. The fact is the whole of Australia despises my father perhaps more than any other man, just as they adore his brother, my uncle, perhaps more than any other man. I might as well set the story straight about both of them, though I don't intend to undermine your love for my uncle or reverse your hatred for my father, especially if its an expansive hatred. I don't want to spoil things if you use your hate to quicken your awareness of who you love."
That simple quote says quite a lot about what this book is concerned with. There is a lot in here about family relationships, particularly between father and son, but also between brothers, as well as between mothers and sons, but to a lesser extent. It should be obvious from this that Jasper and his father, Martin have quite a complex relationship, and that Jasper's feelings towards his father are quite complicated and confused. After the brief introduction from jasper, we move into Martin telling a teenage Jasper the story of his own childhood and early adult life, culminating in his birth in Paris and their return to Australia. Martin was a sickly child, and after spending seven years of his life in a coma in his bedroom, he embarks on his life of thinking, philosophising and generally trying to make the world a better place. His projects include installing a suggestion box in his town, which although initially well received, eventually leads to the incarceration of his criminal brother in a mental asylum and the building of an observatory, which eventually leads to the burning down of the town, and the death of his brother. With a brief interlude which involved a visit to a notorious criminal in the local prison, and the publishing of a book titled the Handbook of Crime, which although well intentioned, also ends in disaster. The descriptions of this book are probably the funniest moments of the whole book
Later on, as Jasper takes up the story of his life once again, it is clear that his father's madcap schemes to change the world have not ended, and although his father is constantly plagued by doubt and periods of depression, which at one point sees him confined to a mental hospital himself, he is constantly trying to make the world a better place, and educate his son how to live a good and non-conformist life himself. His sanity is repeatedly called into question though, especially when he decides to build himself a house in the middle of a labyrinth, so they will be hidden away from the world. The whole thing culminates in a scheme to make everyone in Australia millionaires, which true to form, goes disastrously wrong, and leads to the biggest of the many twists and turns in this book.
Jasper himself has a strange relationship with his father. He is there for him, and apart from a brief interlude when he leaves home, he is always with him. But it is clear he gets frustrated with his dad's constant philosophising on life, and pulls him up on his arguments sometimes. Jasper himself is concerned with who he is, and whether he is just a carbon copy almost of his father. He is plagued by the idea that he is turning into his father, which is an idea he abhors. Yet he can't abandon him.
The story itself is only part of this book though. As just this story it would have been interesting, but nothing special. And very long! It is more Martin's snarky commentary on modern life that make this book worth reading. Sometimes serious, sometimes melancholy and sometimes humorous they are peppered throughout the novel, and although there are just a few samples here, I could have quoted hundreds!
"There's nothing wonderful or interesting about unrequited love. I think it's shitty, just plain shitty. To love someone who doesn't return your affections might be exciting in books, but in life it's unbearably boring. I'll tell you what's exciting: sweaty, passionate nights. But sitting on the veranda outside the home of a sleeping woman who isn't dreaming about you is slow moving and just plain sad."
"Honestly, I've never known how people do married life. I mean, when I go from the bedroom to the bathroom or the kitchen to the bathroom, the last thing I want to do is stop to have a chat."
"I thought there must be something secret and sinister about Lionel Potts. I couldn't believe people hated him for being rich, because I'd noticed most people were aching to be rich too; otherwise they wouldn't buy lottery tickets and plan get rich quick schemes. It made no sense to me that people would hate the very thing they aspired to become."
It was these comments, and many many more that made the book for me. The totally dysfunctional family, the outrageous events, gripping story, unbelievable plot twists well drawn, if slightly over the top characters were all essential too, but it wouldn't be what it was (brilliant), without these philosophical musings from Martin and Jasper. And they do continue throughout the whole book.